The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe by Tom Wolfe - Read Online

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The Bonfire of the Vanities - Tom Wolfe

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Prologue: Mutt on Fire

And then say what? say, ‘forget you’re hungry, forget you got shot inna back by some racist cop—Chuck was here? Chuck come up to Harlem—’

"No, I’ll tell you what—"

‘Chuck come up to Harlem and—’

"I’ll tell you what—"

Say, ‘Chuck come up to Harlem and gonna take care a business for the black community’?

That does it.


It’s one of those ungodly contralto cackles somewhere out there in the audience. It’s a sound from down so deep, from under so many lavish layers, he knows exactly what she must look like. Two hundred pounds, if she’s an ounce! Built like an oil burner! The cackle sets off the men. They erupt with those belly sounds he hates so much.

They go, "Hehhehheh…unnnnhhhh-hunhhh…That’s right…Tell ’em, bro…Yo…"

Chuck! The insolent—he’s right there, right there in the front—he just called him a Charlie! Chuck is short for Charlie, and Charlie is the old code name for a down-home white bigot. The insolence of it! The impudence! The heat and glare are terrific. It makes the Mayor squint. It’s the TV lights. He’s inside a blinding haze. He can barely make out the heckler’s face. He sees a tall silhouette and the fantastic bony angles the man’s elbows make when he throws his hands up in the air. And an earring. The man has a big gold earring in one ear.

The Mayor leans into the microphone and says, "No, I’ll tell you what. Okay? I’ll give you the actual figures. Okay?"

We don’t want your figures, man!

Man, he says! The insolence! "You brought it up, my friend. So you’re gonna get the actual figures. Okay?"

Don’t you shine us up with no more your figures!

Another eruption in the crowd, louder this time: "Unnnnh-unnnnh-unnnh…Tell ’im, bro…Y’ on the case…Yo, Gober!"

In this administration—and it’s a matter of public record—the percentage of the total annual budget for New York City—

Aw, maaaan, yells the heckler, don’t you stand there and shine us up with no more your figures and your bureaucratic rhetoric!

They love it. The insolence! The insolence sets off another eruption. He peers through the scalding glare of the television lights. He keeps squinting. He’s aware of a great mass of silhouettes out in front of him. The crowd swells up. The ceiling presses down. It’s covered in beige tiles. The tiles have curly incisions all over them. They’re crumbling around the edges. Asbestos! He knows it when he sees it! The faces—they’re waiting for the beano, for the rock fight. Bloody noses!—that’s the idea. The next instant means everything. He can handle it! He can handle hecklers! Only five-seven, but he’s even better at it than Koch used to be! He’s the mayor of the greatest city on earth—New York! Him!

"All right! You’ve had your fun, and now you’re gonna shut up for a minute!"

That startles the heckler. He freezes. That’s all the Mayor needs. He knows how to do it.

"Youuuu asked meeeee a question, didn’t you, and you got a bigggg laugh from your claque. And so now youuuuu’re gonna keep quiiiiet and lissssten to the answer. Okay?"

Say, claque? The man has had his wind knocked out, but he’s still standing up.

"Okay? Now here are the statistics for yourrr community, right here, Harlem."

Say, claque? The bastard has hold of this word claque like a bone. Ain’ nobody can eat statistics, man!

Tell ’im, bro…Yo…Yo, Gober!

"Let me finish. Do youuuuu think—"

"Don’t percentage no annual budget with us, man! We want jobs!"

The crowd erupts again. It’s worse than before. Much of it he can’t make out—interjections from deep in the bread basket. But there’s this Yo business. There’s some loudmouth way in back with a voice that cuts through everything.

Yo, Gober! Yo, Gober! Yo, Gober!

But he isn’t saying Gober. He’s saying Goldberg.

Yo, Goldberg! Yo, Goldberg! Yo, Goldberg!

It stuns him. In this place, in Harlem! Goldberg is the Harlem cognomen for Jew. It’s insolent—outrageous!—that anyone throws this vileness in the face of the Mayor of New York City!

Boos, hisses, grunts, belly laughs, shouts. They want to see some loose teeth. It’s out of control.

Do you—

It’s no use. He can’t make himself heard even with the microphone. The hate in their faces! Pure poison! It’s mesmerizing.

Yo, Goldberg! Yo, Goldberg! Yo, Hymie!

Hymie! That business! There’s one of them yelling Goldberg and another one yelling Hymie. Then it dawns on him. Reverend Bacon! They’re Bacon’s people. He’s sure of it. The civic-minded people who come to public meetings in Harlem—the people Sheldon was supposed to make sure filled up this hall—they wouldn’t be out there yelling these outrageous things. Bacon did this! Sheldon fucked up! Bacon got his people in here!

A wave of the purest self-pity rolls over the Mayor. Out of the corner of his eye he can see the television crews squirming around in the haze of light. Their cameras are coming out of their heads like horns. They’re swiveling around this way and that. They’re eating it up! They’re here for the brawl! They wouldn’t lift a finger. They’re cowards! Parasites! The lice of public life!

In the next moment he has a terrible realization: It’s over. I can’t believe it. I’ve lost.

No more your…Outta here…Boooo…Don’ wanna…Yo, Goldberg!

Guliaggi, the head of the Mayor’s plainclothes security detail, is coming toward him from the side of the stage. The Mayor motions him back with a low flap of his hand, without looking at him directly. What could he do, anyway? He brought only four officers with him. He didn’t want to come up here with an army. The whole point was to show that he could go to Harlem and hold a town-hall meeting, just the way he could in Riverdale or Park Slope.

In the front row, through the haze, he catches the eye of Mrs. Langhorn, the woman with the shingle hairdo, the head of the community board, the woman who introduced him just—what?—minutes ago. She purses her lips and cocks her head and starts shaking it. This look is supposed to say, I wish I could help you, but what can I do? Behold the wrath of the people! Oh, she’s afraid like all the rest! She knows she should stand up against this element! They’ll go after black people like her next! They’ll be happy to do it! She knows that. But the good people are intimidated! They don’t dare do a thing! Back to blood! Them and us!

Go on home!…Booooo…Yagggghhh…Yo!

He tries the microphone again. "Is this what—is this what—"

Hopeless. Like yelling at the surf. He wants to spit in their eyes. He wants to tell them he’s not afraid. You’re not making me look bad! You’re letting a handful of hustlers in this hall make all of Harlem look bad! You let a couple of loudmouths call me Goldberg and Hymie, and you don’t shout them down—you shout me down! It’s unbelievable! Do you—you hardworking, respectable, God-fearing people of Harlem, you Mrs. Langhorns, you civic-minded people—do you really think they’re your brothers! Who have your friends been all these years? The Jews! And you let these hustlers call me a Charlie! They call me these things, and you say nothing?

The whole hall appears to be jumping up and down. They’re waving their fists. Their mouths are open. They’re screaming. If they jump any higher, they’ll bounce off the ceiling.

It’ll be on TV. The whole city will see it. They’ll love it. Harlem rises up! What a show! Not the hustlers and the operators and the players rise up—but Harlem rises up! All of black New York rises up! He’s only mayor for some of the people! He’s the mayor of White New York! Set fire to the mutt! The Italians will watch this on TV, and they’ll love it. And the Irish. Even the Wasps. They won’t know what they’re looking at. They’ll sit in their co-ops on Park and Fifth and East Seventy-second Street and Sutton Place, and they’ll shiver with the violence of it and enjoy the show. Cattle! Birdbrains! Rosebuds! Goyim! You don’t even know, do you? Do you really think this is your city any longer? Open your eyes! The greatest city of the twentieth century! Do you think money will keep it yours?

Come down from your swell co-ops, you general partners and merger lawyers! It’s the Third World down there! Puerto Ricans, West Indians, Haitians, Dominicans, Cubans, Colombians, Hondurans, Koreans, Chinese, Thais, Vietnamese, Ecuadorians, Panamanians, Filipinos, Albanians, Senegalese, and Afro-Americans! Go visit the frontiers, you gutless wonders! Morningside Heights, St. Nicholas Park, Washington Heights, Fort Tryon—por qué pagar más! The Bronx—the Bronx is finished for you! Riverdale is just a little freeport up there! Pelham Parkway—keep the corridor open to Westchester! Brooklyn—your Brooklyn is no more! Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope—little Hong Kongs, that’s all! And Queens! Jackson Heights, Elmhurst, Hollis, Jamaica, Ozone Park—whose is it? Do you know? And where does that leave Ridgewood, Bayside, and Forest Hills? Have you ever thought about that! And Staten Island! Do you Saturday do-it-yourselfers really think you’re snug in your little rug? You don’t think the future knows how to cross a bridge? And you, you Wasp charity-ballers sitting on your mounds of inherited money up in your co-ops with the twelve-foot ceilings and the two wings, one for you and one for the help, do you really think you’re impregnable? And you German-Jewish financiers who have finally made it into the same buildings, the better to insulate yourselves from the shtetl hordes, do you really think you’re insulated from the Third World?

You poor fatties! You marshmallows! Hens! Cows! You wait’ll you have a Reverend Bacon for a mayor, and a City Council and a Board of Estimate with a bunch of Reverend Bacons from one end of the chamber to the other! You’ll get to know them then, all right! They’ll come see you! They’ll come see you at 60 Wall and Number One Chase Manhattan Plaza! They’ll sit on your desks and drum their fingers! They’ll dust out your safe-deposit boxes for you, free of charge—

Completely crazy, these things roaring through his head! Absolutely paranoid! Nobody’s going to elect Bacon to anything. Nobody’s going to march downtown. He knows that. But he feels so alone! Abandoned! Misunderstood! Me! You wait’ll you don’t have me any longer! See how you like it then! And you let me stand here alone at this lectern with a goddamned asbestos ceiling coming down on my head—


There’s a terrific commotion on one side of the stage. The TV lights are right in his face. A whole lot of pushing and shoving—he sees a cameraman go down. Some of the bastards are heading for the stairs to the stage, and the television crews are in the way. So they’re going over them. Shoving—shoving somebody back down the stairs—his men, the plainclothes detail, the big one, Norrejo—Norrejo’s shoving somebody back down the stairs. Something hits the Mayor on the shoulder. It hurts like hell! There on the floor—a jar of mayonnaise, an eight-ounce jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise. Half full! Half consumed! Somebody has thrown a half-eaten jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise at him! In that instant the most insignificant thing takes over his mind. Who in the name of God would bring a half-eaten eight-ounce jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise to a public meeting?

The goddamned lights! People are up on the stage…a lot of thrashing about…a regular melee…Norrejo grabs some big devil around the waist and sticks his leg behind him and throws him to the floor. The other two detectives, Holt and Danforth, have their backs to the Mayor. They’re crouched like blocking backs protecting a passer. Guliaggi is right beside him.

Get behind me, says Guliaggi. We’re going through that door.

Is he smiling? Guliaggi seems to have this little smile on his face. He motions his head toward a door at the rear of the stage. He’s short, he has a small head, a low forehead, small narrow eyes, a flat nose, a wide mean mouth with a narrow mustache. The Mayor keeps staring at his mouth. Is that a smile? It can’t be, but maybe it is. This strange mean twist to his lips seems to be saying: It’s been your show up to now, but now it’s mine.

Somehow the smile decides the issue. The Mayor gives up his Custer’s command post at the lectern. He gives himself over to this little rock. Now the others are closed in around him, too, Norrejo, Holt, Danforth. They’re around him like the four corners of a pen. People are all over the stage. Guliaggi and Norrejo are muscling their way through the mob. The Mayor is right on their heels. Snarling faces are all around him. There’s some character barely two feet from him who keeps jumping up and yelling, You little white-haired pussy! He keeps saying it. You little white-haired pussy!

Right in front of him—the big heckler himself! The one with the elbows and the gold earring! Guliaggi is between the Mayor and the heckler, but the heckler towers over Guliaggi. He must be six five. He screams at the Mayor, right in his face:

"Go on back—oof!"

All at once the big son of a bitch is sinking, with his mouth open and his eyes bugged out. Guliaggi has driven his elbow and forearm into the man’s solar plexus.

Guliaggi reaches the door and opens it. The Mayor follows. He feels the other detectives pushing him through from behind. He sprawls against Guliaggi’s back. The guy’s a piece of stone!

They’re going down a stairway. They’re clattering on some metal strips. He’s in one piece. The mob isn’t even on his heels. He’s safe—his heart sinks. They’re not even trying to follow him. They never really tried to touch him. And in that moment…he knows. He knows even before his mind can put it all together.

I did the wrong thing. I gave in to that little smile. I panicked. I’ve lost it all.

1. The Master of the Universe

At that very moment, in the very sort of Park Avenue co-op apartment that so obsessed the Mayor…twelve-foot ceilings…two wings, one for the white Anglo-Saxon Protestants who own the place and one for the help…Sherman McCoy was kneeling in his front hall trying to put a leash on a dachshund. The floor was a deep green marble, and it went on and on. It led to a five-foot-wide walnut staircase that swept up in a sumptuous curve to the floor above. It was the sort of apartment the mere thought of which ignites flames of greed and covetousness under people all over New York and, for that matter, all over the world. But Sherman burned only with the urge to get out of this fabulous spread of his for thirty minutes.

So here he was, down on both knees, struggling with a dog. The dachshund, he figured, was his exit visa.

Looking at Sherman McCoy, hunched over like that and dressed the way he was, in his checked shirt, khaki pants, and leather boating moccasins, you would have never guessed what an imposing figure he usually cut. Still young…thirty-eight years old…tall…almost six-one…terrific posture…terrific to the point of imperious…as imperious as his daddy, the Lion of Dunning Sponget…a full head of sandy-brown hair…a long nose…a prominent chin…He was proud of his chin. The McCoy chin; the Lion had it, too. It was a manly chin, a big round chin such as Yale men used to have in those drawings by Gibson and Leyendecker, an aristocratic chin, if you want to know what Sherman thought. He was a Yale man himself.

But at this moment his entire appearance was supposed to say: I’m only going out to walk the dog.

The dachshund seemed to know what was ahead. He kept ducking away from the leash. The beast’s stunted legs were deceiving. If you tried to lay hands on him, he turned into a two-foot tube packed with muscle. In grappling with him, Sherman had to lunge. And when he lunged, his kneecap hit the marble floor, and the pain made him angry.

C’mon, Marshall, he kept muttering. Hold still, damn it.

The beast ducked again, and he hurt his knee again, and now he resented not only the beast but his wife, too. It was his wife’s delusions of a career as an interior decorator that had led to this ostentatious spread of marble in the first place. The tiny black grosgrain cap on the toe of a woman’s shoe—

—she was standing there.

You’re having a time, Sherman. What on earth are you doing?

Without looking up: I’m taking Marshall for a wa-a-a-a-a-alk.

Walk came out as a groan, because the dachshund attempted a fishtail maneuver and Sherman had to wrap his arm around the dog’s midsection.

Did you know it was raining?

Still not looking up: Yes, I know. Finally he managed to snap the leash on the animal’s collar.

You’re certainly being nice to Marshall all of a sudden.

Wait a minute. Was this irony? Did she suspect something? He looked up.

But the smile on her face was obviously genuine, altogether pleasant…a lovely smile, in fact…Still a very good-looking woman, my wife…with her fine thin features, her big clear blue eyes, her rich brown hair…But she’s forty years old!…No getting around it…Today good-looking…Tomorrow they’ll be talking about what a handsome woman she is…Not her fault…But not mine, either!

I have an idea, she said. "Why don’t you let me walk Marshall? Or I’ll get Eddie to do it. You go upstairs and read Campbell a story before she goes to sleep. She’d love it. You’re not home this early very often. Why don’t you do that?"

He stared at her. It wasn’t a trick! She was sincere! And yet zip zip zip zip zip zip zip with a few swift strokes, a few little sentences, she had…tied him in knots!—thongs of guilt and logic! Without even trying!

The fact that Campbell might be lying in her little bed—my only child!—the utter innocence of a six-year-old!—wishing that he would read her a bedtime story…while he was…doing whatever it was he was now doing…Guilt!…The fact that he usually got home too late to see her at all…Guilt on top of guilt!…He doted on Campbell!—loved her more than anything in the world!…To make matters worse—the logic of it! The sweet wifely face he was now staring at had just made a considerate and thoughtful suggestion, a logical suggestion…so logical he was speechless! There weren’t enough white lies in the world to get around such logic! And she was only trying to be nice!

Go ahead, she said. Campbell will be so pleased. I’ll tend to Marshall.

The world was upside down. What was he, a Master of the Universe, doing down here on the floor, reduced to ransacking his brain for white lies to circumvent the sweet logic of his wife? The Masters of the Universe were a set of lurid, rapacious plastic dolls that his otherwise perfect daughter liked to play with. They looked like Norse gods who lifted weights, and they had names such as Dracon, Ahor, Mangelred, and Blutong. They were unusually vulgar, even for plastic toys. Yet one fine day, in a fit of euphoria, after he had picked up the telephone and taken an order for zero-coupon bonds that had brought him a $50,000 commission, just like that, this very phrase had bubbled up into his brain. On Wall Street he and a few others—how many?—three hundred, four hundred, five hundred?—had become precisely that…Masters of the Universe. There was…no limit whatsoever! Naturally he had never so much as whispered this phrase to a living soul. He was no fool. Yet he couldn’t get it out of his head. And here was the Master of the Universe, on the floor with a dog, hog-tied by sweetness, guilt, and logic…Why couldn’t he (being a Master of the Universe) simply explain it to her? Look, Judy, I still love you and I love our daughter and I love our home and I love our life, and I don’t want to change any of it—it’s just that I, a Master of the Universe, a young man still in the season of the rising sap, deserve more from time to time, when the spirit moves me—

—but he knew he could never put any such thought into words. So resentment began to bubble up into his brain…In a way she brought it on herself, didn’t she…Those women whose company she now seems to prize…those…those…The phrase pops into his head at that very instant: social X-rays…They keep themselves so thin, they look like X-ray pictures…You can see lamplight through their bones…while they’re chattering about interiors and landscape gardening…and encasing their scrawny shanks in metallic Lycra tubular tights for their Sports Training classes…And it hasn’t helped any, has it!…See how drawn her face and neck look…He concentrated on her face and neck…drawn…No doubt about it…Sports Training…turning into one of them—

He managed to manufacture just enough resentment to ignite the famous McCoy temper.

He could feel his face grow hot. He put his head down and said, Juuuuuudy… It was a shout stifled by teeth. He pressed the thumb and the first two fingers of his left hand together and held them in front of his clamped jaws and blazing eyes, and he said:

"Look…I’m all—set—to—walk—the—dog…So I’m—going—out—to—walk—the—dog…Okay?"

Halfway through it, he knew it was totally out of proportion to…to…but he couldn’t hold back. That, after all, was the secret of the McCoy temper…on Wall Street…wherever…the imperious excess.

Judy’s lips tightened. She shook her head.

Please do what you want, she said tonelessly. Then she turned away and walked across the marble hall and ascended the sumptuous stairs.

Still on his knees, he looked at her, but she didn’t look back. Please do what you want. He had run right over her. Nothing to it. But it was a hollow victory.

Another spasm of guilt—

The Master of the Universe stood up and managed to hold on to the leash and struggle into his raincoat. It was a worn but formidable rubberized British riding mac, full of flaps, straps, and buckles. He had bought it at Knoud on Madison Avenue. Once, he had considered its aged look as just the thing, after the fashion of the Boston Cracked Shoe look. Now he wondered. He yanked the dachshund along on the leash and went from the entry gallery out into the elevator vestibule and pushed the button.

Rather than continue to pay around-the-clock shifts of Irishmen from Queens and Puerto Ricans from the Bronx $200,000 a year to run the elevators, the apartment owners had decided two years ago to convert the elevators to automatic. Tonight that suited Sherman fine. In this outfit, with this squirming dog in tow, he didn’t feel like standing in an elevator with an elevator man dressed up like an 1870 Austrian army colonel. The elevator descended—and came to a stop two floors below. Browning. The door opened, and the smooth-jowled bulk of Pollard Browning stepped on. Browning looked Sherman and his country outfit and the dog up and down and said, without a trace of a smile, Hello, Sherman.

Hello, Sherman was on the end of a ten-foot pole and in a mere four syllables conveyed the message: You and your clothes and your animal are letting down our new mahogany-paneled elevator.

Sherman was furious but nevertheless found himself leaning over and picking the dog up off the floor. Browning was the president of the building’s co-op board. He was a New York boy who had emerged from his mother’s loins as a fifty-year-old partner in Davis Polk and president of the Downtown Association. He was only forty but had looked fifty for the past twenty years. His hair was combed back smoothly over his round skull. He wore an immaculate navy suit, a white shirt, a shepherd’s check necktie, and no raincoat. He faced the elevator door, then turned his head, took another look at Sherman, said nothing, and turned back.

Sherman had known him ever since they were boys at the Buckley School. Browning had been a fat, hearty, overbearing junior snob who at the age of nine knew how to get across the astonishing news that McCoy was a hick name (and a hick family), as in Hatfields and McCoys, whereas he, Browning, was a true Knickerbocker. He used to call Sherman Sherman McCoy the Mountain Boy.

When they reached the ground floor, Browning said, You know it’s raining, don’t you?


Browning looked at the dachshund and shook his head. Sherman McCoy. Friend to man’s best friend.

Sherman felt his face getting hot again. He said, That’s it?

What’s it?

You had from the eighth floor to here to think up something bright, and that’s it? It was supposed to sound like amiable sarcasm, but he knew his anger had slipped out around the edges.

I don’t know what you’re talking about, said Browning, and he walked on ahead. The doorman smiled and nodded and held the door open for him. Browning walked out under the awning to his car. His chauffeur held the car door open for him. Not a drop of rain touched his glossy form, and he was off, smoothly, immaculately, into the swarm of red taillights heading down Park Avenue. No ratty riding mac encumbered the sleek fat back of Pollard Browning.

In fact, it was raining only lightly, and there was no wind, but the dachshund was having none of it. He was beginning to struggle in Sherman’s arms. The power of the little bastard! He put the dog down on the runner under the awning and then stepped out into the rain with the leash. In the darkness the apartment buildings on the other side of the avenue were a serene black wall holding back the city’s sky, which was a steaming purple. It glowed, as if inflamed by a fever.

Hell, it wasn’t so bad out here. Sherman pulled, but the dog dug into the runner with his toenails.

Come on, Marshall.

The doorman was standing outside the door, watching him.

I don’t think he’s too happy about it, Mr. McCoy.

I’m not, either, Eddie. And never mind the commentary, thought Sherman. C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, Marshall.

By now Sherman was out in the rain giving the leash a pretty good pull, but the dachshund wasn’t budging. So he picked him up and took him off the rubber runner and set him down on the sidewalk. The dog tried to bolt for the door. Sherman couldn’t give him any more slack on the leash or else he was going to be right back where he started. So now he was leaning one way and the dog was leaning the other, with the leash taut between them. It was a tug-of-war between a man and a dog…on Park Avenue. Why the hell didn’t the doorman get back in the building where he belonged?

Sherman gave the leash a real jerk. The dachshund skidded forward a few inches on the sidewalk. You could hear his toenails scraping. Well, maybe if he dragged him hard enough, he would give up and start walking just to keep from being dragged.

C’mon, Marshall! We’re only going around the corner!

He gave the leash another jerk and then kept pulling for all he was worth. The dog slid forward a couple of feet. He slid! He wouldn’t walk. He wouldn’t give up. The beast’s center of gravity seemed to be at the middle of the earth. It was like trying to drag a sled with a pile of bricks on it. Christ, if he could only get around the corner. That was all he wanted. Why was it that the simplest things—he gave the leash another jerk and then he kept the pressure on. He was leaning like a sailor into the wind. He was getting hot inside his rubberized riding mac. The rain was running down his face. The dachshund had his feet splayed out on the sidewalk. His shoulder muscles were bulging. He was thrashing from side to side. His neck was stretched out. Thank God, he wasn’t barking, at least! He slid. Christ, you could hear it! You could hear his toenails scraping along the sidewalk. He wouldn’t give an inch. Sherman had his head down, his shoulders hunched over, dragging this animal through the darkness and the rain on Park Avenue. He could feel the rain on the back of his neck.

He squatted down and picked up the dachshund, catching a glimpse of Eddie, the doorman, as he did. Still watching! The dog began bucking and thrashing. Sherman stumbled. He looked down. The leash had gotten wrapped around his legs. He began gimping along the sidewalk. Finally he made it around the corner to the pay telephone. He put the dog down on the sidewalk.

Christ! Almost got away! He grabs the leash just in time. He’s sweating. His head is soaked with rain. His heart is pounding. He sticks one arm through the loop in the leash. The dog keeps struggling. The leash is wrapped around Sherman’s legs again. He picks up the telephone and cradles it between his shoulder and his ear and fishes around in his pocket for a quarter and drops it in the slot and dials.

Three rings, and a woman’s voice: Hello?

But it was not Maria’s voice. He figured it must be her friend Germaine, the one she sublet the apartment from. So he said: May I speak to Maria, please?

The woman said: Sherman? Is that you?

Christ! It’s Judy! He’s dialed his own apartment! He’s aghast—paralyzed!


He hangs up. Oh Jesus. What can he do? He’ll bluff it out. When she asks him, he’ll say he doesn’t know what she’s talking about. After all, he said only five or six words. How can she be sure?

But it was no use. She’d be sure, all right. Besides, he was no good at bluffing. She’d see right through him. Still, what else could he do?

He stood there in the rain, in the dark, by the telephone. The water had worked its way down inside his shirt collar. He was breathing heavily. He was trying to figure out how bad it was going to be. What would she do? What would she say? How angry would she be? This time she’d have something she could really work on. She deserved her scene if she wanted it. He had been truly stupid. How could he have done such a thing? He berated himself. He was no longer angry at Judy at all. Could he bluff it out, or had he really done it now? Had he really hurt her?

All at once Sherman was aware of a figure approaching him on the sidewalk, in the wet black shadows of the town houses and the trees. Even from fifty feet away, in the darkness, he could tell. It was that deep worry that lives in the base of the skull of every resident of Park Avenue south of Ninety-sixth Street—a black youth, tall, rangy, wearing white sneakers. Now he was forty feet away, thirty-five. Sherman stared at him. Well, let him come! I’m not budging! It’s my territory! I’m not giving way for any street punks!

The black youth suddenly made a ninety-degree turn and cut straight across the street to the sidewalk on the other side. The feeble yellow of a sodium-vapor streetlight reflected for an instant on his face as he checked Sherman out.

He had crossed over! What a stroke of luck!

Not once did it dawn on Sherman McCoy that what the boy had seen was a thirty-eight-year-old white man, soaking wet, dressed in some sort of military-looking raincoat full of straps and buckles, holding a violently lurching animal in his arms, staring, bug-eyed, and talking to himself.

Sherman stood by the telephone, breathing rapidly, almost panting. What was he to do now? He felt so defeated, he might as well go back home. But if he went back immediately, it would be pretty obvious, wouldn’t it? He hadn’t gone out to walk the dog but to make a telephone call. Besides, whatever Judy was going to say, he wasn’t ready for it. He needed to think. He needed advice. He needed to get this intractable beast out of the rain.

So he dug out another quarter and summoned up Maria’s number into his brain. He concentrated on it. He nailed it down. Then he dialed it with a plodding deliberation, as if he were using this particular invention, the telephone, for the first time.




Taking no chances: It’s me.

Sherman? It came out Shuhhh-mun. Sherman was reassured. That was Maria, all right. She had the variety of Southern accent in which half the vowels are pronounced like u’s and the other half like short i’s. Birds were buds, pens were pins, bombs were bums, and envelopes were invilups.

Listen, he said, I’ll be right over. I’m at a telephone booth. I’m only a couple of blocks away.

There was a pause, which he took to mean she was irritated. Finally: Where on earth have you been? Where un uth have you bin?

Sherman laughed morosely. Look, I’ll be right over.

The staircase of the town house sagged and groaned as Sherman walked up. On each floor a single bare 22-watt circular fluorescent tube, known as the Landlord’s Halo, radiated a feeble tubercular-blue glow upon the walls, which were Rental Unit Green. Sherman passed apartment doors with innumerable locks, one above the other in drunken columns. There were anti-pliers covers over the locks and anti-jimmy irons over the jambs and anti-push-in screens over the door panels.

In blithe moments, when King Priapus reigned, with no crises in his domain, Sherman made this climb up to Maria’s with a romantic relish. How bohemian! How…real this place was! How absolutely right for these moments when the Master of the Universe stripped away the long-faced proprieties of Park Avenue and Wall Street and let his rogue hormones out for a romp! Maria’s one room, with its closet for a kitchen and another closet for a bathroom, this so-called apartment of hers, fourth floor rear, which she sublet from her friend Germaine—well, it was perfect. Germaine was something else again. Sherman had met her twice. She was built like a fire hydrant. She had a ferocious hedge of hair on her upper lip, practically a mustache. Sherman was convinced she was a lesbian. But so what? It was all real! Squalid! New York! A rush of fire in the loins!

But tonight Priapus did not rule. Tonight the grimness of the old brownstone weighed on the Master of the Universe.

Only the dachshund was happy. He was hauling his belly up the stairs at a merry clip. It was warm and dry in here, and familiar.

When Sherman reached Maria’s door, he was surprised to find himself out of breath. He was perspiring. His body was positively abloom beneath the riding mac, his checked shirt, and his T-shirt.

Before he could knock on the door, it opened about a foot, and there she was. She didn’t open it any farther. She stood there, looking Sherman up and down, as if she were angry. Her eyes gleamed above those remarkable high cheekbones of hers. Her bobbed hair was like a black hood. Her lips were drawn up into an O. All at once she broke into a smile and began chuckling with little sniffs through her nose.

Well, come on, said Sherman, let me in! Wait’ll I tell you what happened.

Now Maria pushed the door all the way open, but instead of ushering him inside, she leaned up against the doorjamb and crossed her legs and folded her arms underneath her breasts and kept staring at him and chuckling. She was wearing high-heeled pumps with a black-and-white checkerboard pattern worked into the leather. Sherman knew little about shoe designs, but it registered on him that this one was of the moment. She wore a tailored white gabardine skirt, very short, a good four inches above the knees, revealing her legs, which to Sherman’s eyes were like a dancer’s, and emphasizing her tiny waist. She wore a white silk blouse, open down to the top of her breasts. The light in the tiny entryway was such that it threw her entire ensemble into high relief: her dark hair, those cheekbones, the fine features of her face, the swollen curve of her lips, her creamy blouse, those creamy flan breasts, her shimmering shanks, so insouciantly crossed.

Sherman… Shuhhh-mun. You know what? You’re cute. You’re just like my little brother.

The Master of the Universe was mildly annoyed, but he walked on in, passing her and saying: Oh boy. Wait’ll I tell you what happened.

Without altering her pose in the doorway, Maria looked down at the dog, who was sniffing at the carpet. Hello, Marshall! Muhshull. You’re a wet little piece a salami, Marshall.

Wait’ll I tell you—

Maria started to laugh and then shut the door. "Sherman…you look like somebody just…balled you up—she balled up an imaginary piece of paper—and threw you down."

That’s what I feel like. Let me tell you what happened.

Just like my little brother. Every day he came home from school, and his belly button was showing.

Sherman looked down. It was true. His checked shirt was pulled out of his pants, and his belly button was showing. He shoved the shirt back in, but he didn’t take off the riding mac. He couldn’t settle in here. He couldn’t stay too long. He didn’t know quite how to get that across to Maria.

Every day my little brother got in a fight at school…

Sherman stopped listening. He was tired of Maria’s little brother, not so much because the thrust of it was that he, Sherman, was childish, but because she insisted on going on about it. At first glance, Maria had never struck Sherman as anybody’s idea of a Southern girl. She looked Italian or Greek. But she talked like a Southern girl. The chatter just poured out. She was still talking when Sherman said:

You know, I just called you from a telephone booth. You want to know what happened?

Maria turned her back and walked out into the middle of the apartment, then wheeled about and struck a pose, with her head cocked to one side and her hands on her hips and one high-heeled foot slewed out in a carefree manner and her shoulders thrown back and her back slightly arched, pushing her breasts forward, and she said:

Do you see anything new?

What the hell was she talking about? Sherman wasn’t in a mood for anything new. But he looked her over dutifully. Did she have a new hairdo? A new piece of jewelry? Christ, her husband loaded her with so much jewelry, who could keep track? No, it must be something in the room. His eyes jumped around. It had probably been built as a child’s bedroom a hundred years ago. There was a little bay with three leaded casement windows and a window seat all the way around. He surveyed the furniture…the same old three bentwood chairs, the same old ungainly oak pedestal table, the same old mattress-and-box-spring set with a corduroy cover and three or four paisley cushions strewn on top in an attempt to make it look like a divan. The whole place shrieked: Make Do. In any event, it hadn’t changed.

Sherman shook his head.

You really don’t? Maria motioned with her head in the direction of the bed.

Sherman now noticed, over the bed, a small painting with a simple frame of blond wood. He took a couple of steps closer. It was a picture of a nude man, seen from the rear, outlined in crude black brushstrokes, the way an eight-year-old might do it, assuming an eight-year-old had a notion to paint a nude man. The man appeared to be taking a shower, or at least there was what looked like a nozzle over his head, and some slapdash black lines were coming out of the nozzle. He seemed to be taking a shower in fuel oil. The man’s flesh was tan with sickly lavender-pink smears on it, as if he were a burn case. What a piece of garbage…It was sick…But it gave off the sanctified odor of serious art, and so Sherman hesitated to be candid.

Where’d you get that?

You like it? You know his work?

Whose work?

Filippo Chirazzi.

No, I don’t know his work.

She was smiling. "There was a whole article about him, in the Times."

Not wanting to play the Wall Street philistine, Sherman resumed his study of this masterpiece.

Well, it has a certain…how can I say it?…directness. He fought the urge to be ironic. Where did you get it?

Filippo gave it to me. Very cheery.

That was generous.

"Arthur’s bought four of his paintings, great big ones."

But he didn’t give it to Arthur, he gave it to you.

I wanted one for myself. The big ones are Arthur’s. Besides, Arthur wouldn’t know Filippo from…from I don’t know what, if I hadn’t told him.


You don’t like it, do you.

"I like it. To tell you the truth, I’m rattled. I just did something so goddamned stupid."

Maria gave up her pose and sat down on the edge of the bed, the would-be divan, as if to say, Okay, I’m ready to listen. She crossed her legs. Her skirt was now halfway up her thighs. Even though those legs, those exquisite shanks and flanks of hers, were beside the point right now, Sherman couldn’t keep his eyes off them. Her stockings made them shiny. They glistened. Every time she moved, the highlights shimmered.

Sherman remained standing. He didn’t have much time, as he was about to explain.

I took Marshall out for a walk. Marshall was now stretched out on the rug. And it’s raining. And he starts giving me a very hard time.

When he got to the part about the telephone call itself, he became highly agitated even in the description of it. He noticed that Maria was containing her concern, if any, quite successfully, but he couldn’t calm down. He plunged on into the emotional heart of the matter, the things he felt immediately after he hung up—and Maria cut him off with a shrug and a little flick in the air with the back of her hand.

Oh, that’s nothing, Sherman. That’s nuthun, Shuhmun.

He stared at her.

All you did was make a telephone call. I don’t know why you just didn’t say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. I was calling my friend Maria Ruskin.’ That’s what I woulda done. I never bother lying to Arthur. I don’t tell him every little thing, but I don’t lie to him.

Could he possibly have used such a brazen strategy? He ran it through his mind. Uhmmmmmmmm. It ended up as a groan. I don’t know how I can go out at 9:30 at night and say I’m walking the dog and then call up and say, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I’m really out here calling Maria Ruskin.’

"You know the difference between you and me, Sherman? You feel sorry for your wife, and I don’t feel sorry for Arthur. Arthur’s gonna be seventy-two in August. He knew I had my own friends when he married me, and he knew he didn’t like them, and he had his own friends, and he knew I didn’t like them. I can’t stand them. All those old Yids…Don’t look at me as if I’ve said something awful! That’s the way Arthur talks. ‘The Yiddim.’ And the goyim, and I’m a shiksa. I never heard of all that stuff before I met Arthur. I’m the one who happens to be married to a Jew, not you, and I’ve had to swallow enough of this Jewish business over the past five years to be able to use a little of it if I feel like it."

Have you told him you have your own apartment here?

Of course not. I told you, I don’t lie to him, but I don’t tell him every little thing.

Is this a little thing?

"It’s not as big a thing as you think it is. It’s a pain in the neck. The landlord’s got himself in an uproar again."

Maria stood up and went to the table and picked up a sheet of paper and handed it to Sherman and returned to the edge of the bed. It was a letter from the law firm of Golan, Shander, Morgan, and Greenbaum to Ms. Germaine Boll concerning her status as the tenant of a rent-controlled apartment owned by Winter Real Properties, Inc. Sherman couldn’t concentrate on it. He didn’t want to think about it. It was getting late. Maria kept going off on tangents. It was getting late.

I don’t know, Maria. This is something Germaine has to respond to.


She was smiling with her lips parted. She stood up.

Sherman, come here.

He took a couple of steps toward her, but he resisted going very close. The look on her face said she had very close in mind.

You think you’re in trouble with your wife, and all you’ve done is make a phone call.

Hah. I don’t think I’m in trouble, I know I’m in trouble.

Well, if you’re already in trouble, and you haven’t even done anything, then you might as well do something, since it’s all the same difference.

Then she touched him.

King Priapus, he who had been scared to death, now rose up from the dead.

Sprawled on the bed, Sherman caught a glimpse of the dachshund. The beast had gotten up off the rug and had walked over to the bed and was looking up at them and switching his tail.

Christ! Was there by any chance some way a dog could indicate…Was there anything dogs did that showed they had seen…Judy knew about animals. She clucked and fussed over Marshall’s every mood, until it was revolting. Was there something dachshunds did after observing…But then his nervous system began to dissolve, and he no longer cared.

His Majesty, the most ancient king, Priapus, Master of the Universe, had no conscience.

Sherman let himself into the apartment and made a point of amplifying the usual cozy sounds.

Attaboy, Marshall, okay, okay.

He took off his riding mac with a lot of rustling of the rubberized material and clinking of the buckles and a few whews.

No sign of Judy.

The dining room, the living room, and a small library led off the marble entry gallery. Each had its familiar glints and glows of carved wood, cut glass, ecru silk shades, glazed lacquer, and the rest of the breathtakingly expensive touches of his wife, the aspiring decorator. Then he noticed. The big leather wing chair that usually faced the doorway in the library was turned around. He could just see the top of Judy’s head, from behind. There was a lamp beside the chair. She appeared to be reading a book.

He went to the doorway.

Well! We’re back!

No response.

You were right. I got soaking wet, and Marshall wasn’t happy.

She didn’t look around. There was just her voice, coming from out of the wing chair:

Sherman, if you want to talk to someone named Maria, why do you call me instead?

Sherman took a step inside the room.

"What do you mean? If I want to talk to who?"

The voice: Oh, for God’s sake. Please don’t bother lying.

"Lying—about what?"

Then Judy stuck her head around one side of the wing chair. The look she gave him!

With a sinking heart Sherman walked over to the chair. Within her corona of soft brown hair his wife’s face was pure agony.

"What are you talking about, Judy?"

She was so upset she couldn’t get the words out at first. I wish you could see the cheap look on your face.

"I don’t know what you’re talking about!"

The shrillness in his voice made her laugh.

All right, Sherman, you’re going to stand there and tell me you didn’t call here and ask to speak to someone named Maria?

"To who?"

Some little hooker, if I had to guess, named Maria.

"Judy, I swear to God, I don’t know what you’re talking about! I’ve been out walking Marshall! I don’t even know anybody named Maria! Somebody called here asking for somebody named Maria?"

Uhhh! It was a short, unbelieving groan. She stood up and looked at him square in the eyes. "You stand there! You think I don’t know your voice on the phone?"

Maybe you do, but you haven’t heard it tonight. I swear to God.

You’re lying! She gave him a hideous smile. And you’re a rotten liar. And you’re a rotten person. You think you’re so swell, and you’re so cheap. You’re lying, aren’t you?

"I’m not lying. I swear to God, I took Marshall for a walk, and I come back in here, and wham—I mean, I hardly know what to say, because I truly don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re asking me to prove a negative proposition."

"Negative proposition. Disgust dripped from the fancy phrase. You were gone long enough. Did you go kiss her good night and tuck her in, too?"


Did you?

Sherman rolled his head away from her blazing gaze and turned his palms upward and sighed.

Listen, Judy, you’re totally…totally…utterly wrong. I swear to God.

She stared at him. All at once there were tears in her eyes. Oh, you swear to God. Oh, Sherman. Now she was beginning to snuffle back the tears. I’m not gonna—I’m going upstairs. There’s the telephone. Why don’t you call her from here? She was forcing the words out through her tears. I don’t care. I really don’t care.

Then she walked out of the room. He could hear her shoes clicking across the marble toward the staircase.

Sherman went over to the desk and sat down in his Hepplewhite swivel chair. He slumped back. His eyes lit on the frieze that ran around the ceiling of the little room. It was carved of Indian redwood, in high relief, in the form of figures hurrying along a city sidewalk. Judy had had it done in Hong Kong for an astonishing amount…of my money. Then he leaned forward. Goddamn her. Desperately he tried to relight the fires of righteous indignation. His parents had been right, hadn’t they? He deserved better. She was two years older than he was, and his mother had said such things could matter—which, the way she said it, meant it would matter, and had he listened? Ohhhhh no. His father, supposedly referring to Cowles Wilton, who had a short messy marriage to some obscure little Jewish girl, had said, Isn’t it just as easy to fall in love with a rich girl from a good family? And had he listened? Ohhhhhh no. And all these years, Judy, as the daughter of a Midwestern history professor—a Midwestern history professor!—had acted as if she was an intellectual aristocrat—but she hadn’t minded using his money and his family to get in with this new social crowd of hers and start her decorating business and smear their names and their apartment across the pages of these vulgar publications, W and Architectural Digest and the rest of them, had she? Ohhhhhhhhh no, not for a minute! And what was he left with? A forty-year-old bolting off to her Sports Training classes—

—and all at once, he sees her as he first saw her that night fourteen years ago in the Village at Hal Thorndike’s apartment with the chocolate-brown walls and the huge table covered with obelisks and the crowd that went considerably beyond bohemian, if he understood bohemian—and the girl with the light brown hair and the fine, fine features and the wild short skimpy dress that revealed so much of her perfect little body. And all at once he feels the ineffable way they closed themselves up in the perfect cocoon, in his little apartment on Charles Street and her little apartment on West Nineteenth, immune to all that his parents and Buckley and St. Paul’s and Yale had ever imposed on him—and he remembers how he told her—in practically these words!—that their love would transcend…everything—

—and now she, forty years old, starved and Sports Trained to near-perfection, goes crying off to bed.

He slumped back in the swivel chair once more. Like many a man before him, he was no match, at last, for a woman’s tears. He hung his noble chin over his collarbone. He folded.

Absentmindedly he pressed a button on the desktop. The tambour door of a faux-Sheraton cabinet rolled back, revealing the screen of a television set. Another of his dear weeping decorator’s touches. He opened the desk drawer and took out the remote-control gadget and clicked the set to life. The news. The Mayor of New York. A stage. An angry crowd of black people. Harlem. A lot of thrashing about. A riot. The Mayor takes cover. Shouts…chaos…a real rhubarb. Absolutely pointless. To Sherman it had no more meaning than a gust of wind. He couldn’t concentrate on it. He clicked it off.

She was right. The Master of the Universe was cheap, and he was rotten, and he was a liar.

2. Gibraltar

The next morning, to Lawrence Kramer, she appears, from out of a feeble gray dawn, the girl with brown lipstick. She stands right beside him. He can’t make out her face, but he knows she’s the girl with brown lipstick. He can’t make out any of the words, either, the words that tumble like tiny pearls from between those lips with brown lipstick, and yet he knows what she’s saying. Stay with me, Larry. Lie down with me, Larry. He wants to! He wants to! He wants nothing more in this world! Then why doesn’t he? What holds him back from pressing his lips upon those lips with brown lipstick? His wife, that’s what. His wife, his wife, his wife, his wife, his wife—

He woke up to the pitch and roll of his wife crawling down to the foot of the bed. What a flabby, clumsy spectacle…The problem was that the bed, a queen-size resting on a plywood platform, was nearly the width of the room. So you had to crawl down or otherwise traverse the length of the mattress to reach the floor.

Now she was standing on the floor and bending over a chair to pick up her bathrobe. The way her flannel nightgown came down over her hips, she looked a mile wide. He immediately regretted thinking any such thought. He tingled with sentiment. My Rhoda! After all, she had given birth just three weeks ago. He was looking at the loins that had brought forth his first child. A son! She didn’t have her old shape back yet. He had to allow for that.

Still, that didn’t make the view any better.

He watched her wiggle into the bathrobe. She turned toward the doorway. A light came from the living room. No doubt the baby nurse, who was from England, Miss Efficiency, was already up and waxing efficient. In the light he could see his wife’s pale, puffy, undecorated face in profile.

Only twenty-nine, and already she looked just like her mother.

She was the same person all over again! She was her mother! No two ways about it! It was only a matter of time! She had the same reddish hair, the same freckles, the same chubby peasant nose and cheeks, even the beginning of her mother’s double chin. A yenta in embryo! Little Gretel of the shtetl! Young and yitzy on the Upper West Side!

He narrowed his eyelids to slits so that she wouldn’t know he was awake. Then she left the room. He could hear her saying something to the baby nurse and to the baby. She had a way of saying Jo-shu-a in baby cadence. That was a name he was already beginning to regret. If you wanted a Jewish name, what was wrong with Daniel or David or Jonathan? He pulled the covers back up over his shoulders. He would return to the sublime narcosis of sleep for another five or ten minutes. He would return to the girl with brown lipstick. He closed his eyes…It was no use. He couldn’t get her back. All he could think of was what the rush to the subway would be like if he didn’t get up now.

So he got up. He walked down the mattress. It was like trying to walk along the bottom of a rowboat, but he didn’t want to crawl. So flabby and clumsy…He was wearing a T-shirt and B.V.D. shorts. He became aware that he had that common affliction of young men, a morning erection. He went to the chair and put on his old plaid bathrobe. Both he and his wife had started wearing bathrobes since the English baby nurse had come into their lives. One of the apartment’s many tragic flaws was that there was no way of getting from the bedroom to the bathroom without going through the living room, where the nurse slept on the convertible couch and the baby resided in a crib beneath a music-box mobile hung with tiny stuffed clowns. He could hear it now. The music box played the tune Send in the Clowns. It played it over and over again. Plink plink plinkplink, plink plink plinkplink, plink PLINK plinkplink.

He looked down. The bathrobe did not do the trick. It looked as if there was a tent pole underneath it. But if he bent over, like this, it wasn’t noticeable. So he could walk through the living room and let the baby nurse see the tent pole, or he could walk through hunched over as if he had a back spasm. So he just stood where he was, in the gloom.

The gloom was right. The presence of the baby nurse had made him and Rhoda acutely aware of what a dump they lived in. This entire apartment, known as a 3½-room in New York real-estate parlance, had been created out of what had once been a pleasant but by no means huge bedroom on the third floor of a town house, with three windows overlooking the street. The so-called room he now stood in was really nothing more than a slot that had been created by inserting a plasterboard wall. The slot had one of the windows. What was left of the original room was now called a living room, and it had the other two windows. Back by the door to the hallway were two more slots, one for a kitchen two people couldn’t pass each other in, and the other for a bathroom. Neither had a window. The place was like one of those little ant colonies you can buy, but it cost them $888 a month, rent stabilized. If it hadn’t been for the rent-stabilization law, it would have cost probably $1,500, which would be out of the question. And they had been happy to find it! My God, there were college graduates his age, thirty-two, all over New York who were dying to find an apartment like this, a 3½, with a view, in a